The Florida Gators are Tiger Bait once again- this time thanks to an all-time ugly showing from the defense. (Photo credit: LSU athletics)
No loss ever leaves Florida Gators football fans feeling good. That is only heightened with a home loss, and losing a home game at night to an unranked team is usually cause for major concern about the program. This particular loss to LSU, though, is more problematic than most.
What stood out along the way?
1: Anthony Richardson played well enough to lead Florida to a win
I think we all know that the rest of this Five Takeaways piece is going to be ugly, so let’s just start with the one positive takeaway. Anthony Richardson was not perfect by any means, but with even a garden-variety bad defense wearing Florida jerseys as opposed to an astoundingly worthless one (more on that later), his play guides Florida to a victory.
Less than one minute into the game, Richardson launched a perfect ball to Justin Shorter, who caught it for a touchdown to start the night with a bang and spot Florida a 7-0 lead. He also took off on a spectacular 81 yard touchdown run to start the fourth quarter, and throughout the game, made all the ordinary plays he had to make on top of the extraordinary plays. He also apparently checked into several running plays at the line when a pass was called and he didn’t like the coverage, which paved the way for huge nights for Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson.
To be clear, Richardson also had some not-so-great moments. He missed some reads, was inaccurate on other throws, and finished the game with four straight incompletions on the final drive. But even with those four consective incompletions to end his night, Richardson finished 15-25 with 185 yards through the air and 109 more yards on the ground. Even with the missed reads and misfired balls, the sum of his night was more than good enough to win.
2: The Florida Gators defense is atrocious, and it’s only getting worse by the week
By no means did I expect Florida to come into the 2022 season and just shut down opposing offenses left and right, not after what we all saw in 2020 and 2021. In fact, it was a minor miracle that the defense was as good as it was against Utah and Kentucky. Sure enough, reality then sank in, and this defense regressed to the mean. Translation: it’s just not that good. And I don’t have a huge problem with that- I don’t like it, but I can’t act like I’m too shocked by it- in Napier’s inaugural season.
But what I simply cannot stand is the fact that, for the most part, the defense gets worse each time it steps on the field. The 530 yards and 45 points that LSU amassed is appalling enough by itself, without any context applied to it. Now consider that Auburn, a program neck-deep in turmoil with its third defensive coordinator in as many years, held LSU to half those totals (270 yards and 21 points).
An anomaly, you say? I’m honing in on one data point that suits my argument, you think? Think LSU just had an uncharacteristically bad game against Auburn?
In none of its other three games against Power Five programs (vs. FSU, Mississippi State, and Tennessee) did LSU reach 420 yards or eclipse 31 points. Yet against the mighty Florida Gators in the Swamp, LSU ran up 530 yards and 45 points (I’m not counting the -2 yards that technically count against them when LSU was taking knees to finish off the game).
Watching the game tape makes it pretty easy to see why, too. Florida’s defense literally didn’t do anything right- you know, again- against LSU. The Gators didn’t tackle (21 missed tackles, per PFF), they didn’t take the correct angles to give themselves a chance to tackle, they turned the wrong way in coverage, they didn’t apply any semblance of a pass rush all night other than one single play, and somehow, Florida cornerbacks either gave LSU receivers free releases with at least eight yard cushions off the line or got baked over the top for a touchdown on almost every single play.
How all of those things happen in the same game- and to slightly lesser (varying) degrees, pretty consistently in each of the first six games- is simply flabbergasting. And there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Sure, go ahead and point the finger at Trey Dean if you want- he’s certainly not without blame- but he’s not the one who got broiled on Jayden Daniels’ two long touchdown bombs. Jalen Kimber got beat on the 24 yard strike to Brian Thomas (and he actually provided solid coverage, he just got beat), and Jaydon Hill- the hero last week against Missouri- got burned on the 54 yarder to Jaray Jenkins to lowlight a really rough day in which he gave up seven completions for over 100 yards. And the 21 missed tackles were spread out pretty evenly among the defense.
We’ll give more analysis as to who’s to blame to what degree for all of this later in the week, but for now, the short answer is that a lot of people bear at least a little bit of responsibility. And now that it’s not merely consistently bad but getting worse by the week, I’m not left with a lot of confidence that it’s going to get appreciably better before the season is over.
3: The defense is even worse than it looks on first glance when you apply the “efficiency” context
Part of the reason I like Ken Pomeroy’s basketball advanced rankings so much is because they apply so much context to the rankings they provide. Giving up X number of points in a game, for example, is what it is. But X can be made to look better or worse than what it is when right alongside that number is the number of points that an opponent could possibly score.
In both basketball and football, each team gets a certain number of possessions per game. In football, it’s possible to score a maximum of seven (or I guess eight, but let’s not complicate things any more than they need to be) points and gain however many yards away from the end zone you are when you start your drive, on each drive. So if you start every single drive at midfield, get the ball nine times, and score touchdowns on all nine drives, you’ve amassed 63 points and 450 yards, which are great offensive numbers on their own- but when you realize that you literally could not have finished with any higher final numbers, the description of those numbers goes from “great” to “perfect.”
And even beyond mere efficiency, there’s still more context out there to be had. Those numbers and that game tape that the Florida Gators were responsible for would be pretty ugly on their own merit if Florida gave up three 75 yard touchdown strikes during the game, but that would at least insinuate that LSU did not possess the ball for very long on those drives, and with more clock still to account for and LSU being capped at 305 more yards and 24 more points for the game, it would mean that Florida’s defense at least got some stops. But no. LSU did their damage slowly, methodically, and consistently.
So instead of looking at the raw numbers, it’s more telling to look at how many yards LSU got vs. how many more they possibly could have gotten but was stopped by Florida’s defense from doing so.
So let’s talk defensive efficiency. LSU scored a touchdown each of the first six times it had the ball before Florida finally got a stop, the first and last stop it would make all night. LSU’s next possession and final non-kneeldown-possession would result in the game-sealing field goal. That means on six of eight drives (75%), LSU scored a touchdown, and on seven of its eight drives (87.5%) it put points on the board. That’s a putrid defensive showing. It’s not bad, it’s putrid.
And now we come to the part of the game that Florida fans are angriest about: the third down defense. LSU going 8-12 on third down is a grotesque statistic by itself, especially when you realize that that statistic included three third and eights, a third and ten, and a third and fifteen. But now let’s make it even worse: on two of those third downs that Florida’s defense did not give up a first down, LSU simply walked back to the line and converted on fourth down, and on one of the remaining two, LSU kicked the guillotine-dropping field goal, meaning it didn’t even matter. Worthless. It did Florida no good.
So let’s restate that another way. LSU faced twelve third downs. On ten of those sets of downs, they wound up gaining a first down. On one more, they didn’t need the first down; they merely kicked the fatal field goal. So despite forcing twelve third downs, Florida only forced one single punt.
Sounds pretty bad, right? It is. Your reactions are not knee-jerk, nor are they hyperbolic.
As a result of that blunderful performance, Florida now owns the worst third-down defense in the entire country. The Gators are allowing opponents to convert 54.43% of their third downs, which ranks 131st out of 131 FBS teams. And Florida’s defense as a whole is ranked 106th in the FBS, giving up an incredible 429.3 yards per game- with Eastern Washington and South Florida contributing to those numbers.
None of this, by the way, is calculated to drum up “Fire Patrick Toney!” sentiments; again, we’ll do more of a deep blame-assigning analysis during the week. What these numbers are meant to do, though, is justify the shock and the hyperbolic-seeming reactions to this defensive performance. Because yes, it really is that awful. Things really are that dire.
4: LSU owns the nighttime Swamp
I know that there’s no direct cause and effect relationship between the time of a game and Florida losing. I know there’s no such thing as a hex. I know it’s not rational to claim that “Florida lost to LSU because night games in the Swamp against LSU are cursed.” I get all of that. It’s silly.
But at the same time, no longer can the home crowd of the Swamp at night be considered an advantage for Florida, at least not when LSU is the opponent. It simply doesn’t matter. Seven times this century, Florida has hosted LSU at nighttime in Gainesville. Only once in those seven games did Florida beat LSU, and that was an all-time great team in 2008 that would go on to win the national championship. The other six times this century Florida has hosted LSU at night, the Gators lost: 2002, 2004, 2010, 2014, 2020, and 2022.
This dates all the way back to the Nick Saban days, through the Les Miles era, through Ed Orgeron’s tenure and now into Brian Kelly’s reign. The player names and coaching staffs change for both teams through the years, but the result seldom does. No matter how inconsistent LSU’s quarterback play is that year, no matter how loud Florida’s crowd gets for third and long, LSU has officially made Ben Hill Griffin Stadium its home away from home- and like its actual home in Baton Rouge, the Tigers like it best when the sun goes down.
The verdict: it’s time for the Florida Gators to begin preparation for 2023
Pretty much everything that the Florida Gators strive for every season is out the window for this 2022 team. The national championship and SEC championship hopes were out the window long before this game, but now even the backup, consolation, good-for-a-rebuilding-year goals are gone. Even if Florida were to somehow beat Georgia and run the table, the New Year’s Six is a reach at best with Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi all well on their way to finishing ranked ahead of Florida in at-large New Year’s Six selection pecking order- and that’s just in the SEC alone.
So this season will not be remembered as a good one. However, that does not mean it can’t still be a productive one, not with five games and our two biggest rivals still lurking.
Ventrell Miller and O’Cyrus Torrence are excluded from this next statement I’m about to make. Those two have given their hearts and souls for the Gators this year (and in Miller’s case, for five years) and they deserve the rest of the year to not only keep going to war with the teammates of theirs who want to be here, but to continue to improve their NFL Draft stock. If Ethan White, Justin Shorter, and— gasp— Anthony Richardson are considering going pro, then add them as additional exceptions to this rule.
But with those aforementioned exceptions, it’s probably best for the Florida Gators to strictly be playing guys who want to be here in 2023 from here on out.
No more playing time for Trey Dean; he’s done more than enough. I’d much rather Kamari Wilson make the same mistakes Dean makes on a consistent basis because Wilson at least brings the possibility of learning from them. Force Brenton Cox to prove he wants to be here before he sees another snap, and let Lloyd Summerall get some experience while Cox figures out what percentage of the snaps he’s going to give his best effort on. Nothing personal against Amari Burney, he made some nice plays in his five years at Florida and for that he has my respect, but those reps need to be going to freshmen Shemar James and Scooby Williams so they can get live action with Miller mentoring them on the fly while he still can.
Now, I’m pretty certain that the 2023 team will look markedly different anyway. Under Napier, Florida has already stockpiled its 2023 recruiting class with six defensive line commits and four defensive back commits, and given that these are Napier’s signees-to-be, it’s a safe bet that they’re bound to see the field quickly. And that also goes for any transfer portal additions Napier might snatch this offseason.
(Aside: on top of the fact that it is his first season, this is why I’m still solidly in Napier’s corner. I don’t expect things to stay this way once Napier, Katie Turner, Bri Wade, and the position coaches get the players they want into the program and subsequently develop them. I remain fully trusting of Napier’s ability to build a future for the Florida Gators football program.)
But unless Napier plans to trot out a team with all freshmen, sophomores, and transfers, he’s going to have to wring productivity out of some of the Dan Mullen holdovers to patch together a team. With this season shot, Napier has an opportunity to get to work picking out who, exactly, among the Mullen holdovers he can expect to contribute in 2023.
That’s not to say this season still can’t provide more unforgettable moments. There’s already one such moment in the memory bank with beating Utah. There’s also a precedent of five-loss Florida teams sinking Georgia’s national championship hopes in the St. John’s River. And though it seems highly unlikely at this point, going to Tallahassee and extending that winning streak over FSU to four is still on the table.
However, if the goal is to do what’s best for the program, Napier might want to let the youngsters be the ones to take aim at those second-tier consolation goals. If Florida can get to 8-4 and pull an upset or two with them, it’s a bonus. But either way, we’ll be thankful he did at this time in 2023.